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U.S. State Department finally adds Saudi Arabia to list of religious liberty violators

WASHINGTON (BP)–The State Department has rewarded the persistence of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom by adding Saudi Arabia to its list of severe violators of religious liberty after five years of efforts by the independent panel.

The State Department named not only Saudi Arabia but Vietnam and Eritrea as new members of its “countries of particular concern.” Retained on the CPC list from last year were Burma, China, Iran, North Korea and Sudan. Iraq was dropped from the list in the wake of the United States-led coalition’s toppling of Saddam Hussein’s regime.

The USCIRF had recommended Saudi Arabia’s inclusion on the CPC list since the commission was formed in 1999. The State Department had acknowledged religious liberty did not exist in the Middle East country in previous years without designating it as a CPC.

The USCIRF’s recommendation of Saudi Arabia, and the State Department’s designation of the country, as a CPC was based on the dominance of a state-approved version of Sunni Islam known as Wahhabi. The Saudi government is hostile to non-Muslims and Muslims outside the Wahhabi tradition. It prohibits conversion to a different faith, public religious activities by non-Muslims, and proselytizing and distribution efforts by non-Muslims.

The USCIRF also had targeted Saudi Arabia because of evidence it had collected that the government was funding the spread of Wahhabism to schools in other countries.

The commission’s CPC recommendations for Saudi Arabia have been based “not only on the Saudi government’s violations of religious freedom within its own borders but also based on reports of its propagation and export of an ideology of religious hate and intolerance throughout the world,” USCIRF Chair Preeta Bansal said in a written statement. The Saudi government’s repressive policies and its financial support of Wahhabism obstruct “the development of voices of toleration and debate within the Islamic tradition,” she said.

John Hanford, the State Department’s ambassador at large for religious freedom, told reporters Saudi Arabia’s restrictive policies had not increased in the last year but said he believes “in my time here, we have had an adequate opportunity to dialogue, to try to understand each other, to work on these problems, and we felt the time had come that Saudi [Arabia] should be designated.” Hanford, an ex-officio USCIRF member, became ambassador in 2002.

In the State Department’s annual religious freedom report or in Hanford’s statement, violations in the other CPCs were described:

— Vietnam: The conditions for ethnic minority Protestants and some independent Buddhists deteriorated in the time period covered by the State Department report. Hundreds of churches and other places of worship in the country’s central highlands were closed, and many Protestants were pressured or tortured to renounce their faith. At least 45 religious adherents, including Protestants, Catholics and Buddhists, are in prison.

— Eritrea: The government shut down all religious activities except those of four approved groups: The Evangelical Lutheran Church; Orthodox Christians; Catholics; and Muslims. It is estimated more than 200 people are imprisoned because of their religious faith. Some reportedly have undergone severe torture.

— Burma: Christians, Buddhists and Muslims reported repression by the government. The government has destroyed churches and mosques. Violence against Muslims has continued.

— China: The communist government’s suppression of Protestants in unregistered churches, Catholics faithful to the Vatican, Tibetan Buddhists, Uighur Muslims and the Falun Gong continued. Imprisonment, beatings, torture and the destruction of places of worship were reported.

— Iran: The Islamic regime persecuted the country’s religious minorities, including Christians, Jews, Baha’is and Sunni Muslims. These groups reported imprisonment, harassment and discrimination. The government has closed churches and arrested converts to Christianity.

— North Korea: The world’s most closed country continued to permit no religious liberty. There were reports Christians and other religious adherents were imprisoned, tortured and executed for their faith.

— Sudan: The effort by the regime to impose its extreme form of Islam on Christians, animists and Muslims not affiliated with the Khartoum government continued.

The State Department chose not to include three other countries the USCIRF had recommended for the CPC list. Those countries were India, Pakistan and Turkmenistan.

The USCIRF continued to express concern that the U.S. government has not followed through in the CPC process. Though the International Religious Freedom Act — the 1998 law that established the system, the ambassador’s post and the commission –- requires the administration to act to bring change in CPCs, no administration has acted officially to do more than invoke sanctions that already exist, the USCIRF said.

“This past disregard of IRFA requirements represents a serious failure in U.S. foreign policy,” Bansal said. “The CPC designation is the beginning of focused diplomatic activity on religious freedom and not the end.”

Under the IRFA, the State Department has 90 days to designate the policies it will utilize with the CPC designees. The IRFA requires the president to take specific actions against governments designated as CPCs. He is provided a range of options, from diplomacy to economic sanctions. The president also has the authority to waive any action.

Though they were not listed as CPCs, the following countries were placed by the State Department in the accompanying categories:

— Totalitarian regimes that seek to control religion: Cuba and Laos.

— Regimes that repress non-approved religions: Pakistan; Turkmenistan; and Uzbekistan.

— Governments that fail to protect minority religions: Bangladesh; Egypt; Georgia; Guatemala; India; Indonesia; Nigeria; and Sri Lanka.

— Governments with discriminatory legislation against minority religions: Azerbaijan; Belarus; Brunei; Israel; Malaysia; Moldova; Russia; and Turkey.

— Governments that brand minority religions as “cults:” Belgium; France; and Germany.

The State Department also cited five countries for significant improvements: Afghanistan; Georgia; India; Turkey; and Turkmenistan.

Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, is near the close of his service as a member of the USCIRF. President Bush appointed him to a two-year term with the panel in 2001 and reappointed him to a one-year term in 2003.

The IRFA established the nine-member commission to advise the White House and Congress. The president selects three members of the panel, while congressional leaders name the other six.

The State Department’s full report, which was released Sept. 15, may be accessed online at www.state.gov.